To the Point for 10/12/06

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THERE WAS A TIME when my greatest heroes were sports figures. As a child, I spent hours collecting and cataloging baseball cards, trading them with my friends, and attaching players that I didn’t like to the spokes of my bicycle.

But there were sports figures that were larger than life to me. Some were professionals, while others were college and even high school players.

I remember as a little boy, the teenage girl who lived next door was dating Phil Dunnington, the senior quarterback of our high school football team.

Looking back, he was an 18-year old kid at the time, but to me, he was the greatest athlete that I had ever seen. Surely no one was better than Phil, and I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t playing on television like the other spectacular athletes.

One afternoon I drew up my courage and I walked next door and went face to face with Phil Dunnington, who was sitting on the neighbor’s front porch. Shyly I produced a football from behind my back and a black magic marker, and I asked him if he would autograph my football.

Looking back, he had every reason to brush off this little kid and his football, but instead I remember that he was very humbled and he signed my football and then threw it around the yard with me for a few minutes.

More than 35 years later, it is one of my fondest childhood memories.

But as I said, there was a time when parents could point to professional athletes and allow their children to use them as role models.

Today, as more and more reports are brought to public view, professional athletes are probably the worst people that a child can look up to – or at least it seems that way.

Is your child a football fan? Better not point him toward the Cincinnati Bengals, where one player has been suspended for the year; another for four games; and at least four others have been arrested on various charges.

But the Bengals aren’t alone. A safety for the San Diego Chargers faces felony charges; Baltimore’s Ray Lewis was once charged with attempted murder; and his teammate Jamal Lewis spend time in federal prison.

A basketball fan? If the Pacer-Piston melee of two years ago didn’t sour you; how about four Pacer players in a strip club at 3 a.m., and then Stephen Jackson gets punched and run over by a car; and his response is to pull out a weapon and fire shots at the car leaving the scene.

By the way, Indianapolis police also found some marijuana in the car door, which is owned by Pacer Jamal Tinsley, but since they couldn’t identify whose pot it was, they didn’t file charges.

Think that would happen if local authorities found illegal drugs in your car?

“Really, Sheriff Hughes. I know it’s in my car, but you can’t prove that it belongs to me, so you have to let me go.”

Right. That’ll happen.

Hockey’s not a popular sport in this area; but one player is on trial for ordering a professional killing while an assistant coach is in jail awaiting trial on running a huge gambling ring.

Baseball? It’s filled with allegations and counter-allegations about performance enhancing drugs. Should Barry Bonds’ home run record be validated because of accusations that he used steroids? His proponents say you can’t prove he took them; but if you watch old tape of him in earlier games, how does a man’s head get bigger by natural means? Are there exercises to increase your hat size?

Busted players identify other offenders in grand jury testimony; only to deny it after that testimony is leaked to the press.

It goes on and on.

My solution? There isn’t one, really.

My personal opinion is that these people simply get paid too much money to play a sport. Statistically, many of these players come from impoverished childhoods, and suddenly they are away from home in a new city with more money than they could ever spend.

What would you expect to happen?

Back to my baseball cards. If you collected them at the same general time that I did, then you’ll remember that on the backs were little cartoons that told some fun fact about the player.

“Will sells insurance in the off season”, it might say; or “Tony works at his car dealership when the season is over.”

You see, those guys back then would play a game during the season, and then most of them would hold down real jobs during the off season because they didn’t make enough money playing the sport to support themselves.

They did it because they loved to play. Sure, they made more than the average worker, but they weren’t pulling in millions in signing bonuses and endorsements.

I remember specifically an announcement from Cincinnati one day that said that Pete Rose had just signed a contract that made him the first player to earn $100,000 in a season.

Now, high school guys in rookie leagues make that.

But perhaps, looking with hindsight at Pete Rose’s fall from grace; I guess him being the sports figure with more money than any other might have led him to do the things he did to be banished from the game that he loved.

I don’t know that, it’s just a thought. But in a world where “SportsCenter” kicks off each night with a police log rather than a box score, as parents we are probably smart to look in other directions to find heroes for our children to admire.

I’m not sure where Phil Dunnington lives anymore.